We were delighted when Mark Gatiss recently agreed to take time out of his incredibly busy schedule to look back on his very first episode of Doctor Who. Mark’s episode, The Unquiet Dead, was the third episode of Series One of the relaunched series. It caused a number of complaints about Doctor Who being too scary for children. Hurrah!
WhoSFX: What was the original brief from RTD?
Mark: Russell emailed an outline for the series. I’m sure it’s been reproduced now but what I remember best were the (sort of) remake of Spearhead from Space kicking things off, the farting aliens, Captain Jaxx (as he was then called) and that episode three was labelled ‘The name’s Dickens. Charles Dickens!’ Dickens in Cardiff, seances and gas creatures living in the walls. I crossed my fingers that that was the one he wanted me to do!
Mark: Russell and I met at the BAFTAs in 2000 when The League of Gentlemen won. I suppose he knew where my tastes lay but, of course, when the series was announced as returning, who knew which writers would be asked? I’d just had a series (The Ministry of Time) turned down and I remember the email from Jane Tranter, saying no, ended with ‘Perhaps Mark could write for the new Doctor Who? That would be exciting!’ So I was very hopeful.
WhoSFX: If you’d been given a blank sheet of paper would we still have had a Victorian ghost story?
Mark: The blank sheet of paper is what writers fear most. It’s almost always nicer to have a least something to go on. A bit of grit to make the (hopeful) pearl! But I suppose I’d have gone for something in the same area, yes. I’ve always loved historical settings, Victoriana and ghost stories are my favourite things of all so I suppose it might have been similar in tone. But RTD effectively invented the ‘celebrity historical’ for Doctor Who (hardly touched before except for Marco Polo and…um…Timelash!) I was wary of the Dickens element at first but A Christmas Carol is one of my favourite stories and I fell in love with the idea of making it a Dickens story about Dickens.
WhoSFX: Was this like the story you’d had in your mind for 30 years?
Mark: I knew I wanted it to be scary. That was very important. And I remember at the first meeting I had about it with RTD, Julie and Phil I waxed lyrical about the (to me) magical idea of time travel. That’s where the footprint in the snow came from and the ‘hundred thousand sunsets’ line. I’ve always found the notion of time travel so spine-tinglingly wonderful. But was it the story I’d had in mind for 30 years? Probably not. Elements of it, certainly. But the Dickens framework that Russell gave me let me play with all the sorts of things I love best!
WhoSFX: As it was your first episode, and the first series, was this the hardest of your Doctor Who scripts to write?
Mark: I suppose so in the sense that an awful lot had to be unlearnt. It seems so natural now (as I write my ninth episode – ten if you count the un-produced one!) but the forty five minute format took some getting used to. Growing up with four and six parters and cliffhanger endings was how Doctor Who worked so that was a challenge. Also just the sheer speed of a new episode. I remember in an early draft I had the Doctor and Rose coming out of the TARDIS and then going back in again for several scenes. Russell said ‘why do they do that?” And the answer was, because that’s what used to happen! There was a lot more time to fill in the old days. I do recall thinking that what might be sacrificed for speed was suspense but it rapidly became clear that this new pace of storytelling would breathe fantastic new life into the format. And that the pre-titles would essentially be the old ‘part one’ in condensed form. There’s your cliffhanger – before the titles!
WhoSFX: Was it hard not being fully ‘in control’?
Mark: Yes it was but I believed very strongly that the reason the show might work was that Russell was doing it his way. The BBC trusted his vision and the results are obvious to this day. Doing The League of Gentlemen and now running Sherlock with Steven Moffat makes you realise the importance of a ‘vision’ for a show. There were disagreements about the tone or the odd line but it was all very friendly and I was hugely happy with the end result. Now the show is a proven phenomenon again, it’s easy to forget what a risk it all was. But everyone was so determined to help Russell reinvent the show. It was a very heady and very exciting time.
WhoSFX:How did you balance the lighter elements with the incredibly dark themes?
Mark: Well, I suppose that’s my speciality. The League of Gentlemen always had a great deal of pathos amidst the grosser or darker elements and ‘bitter sweet’ is my favourite form in comedy and drama. I’ve always been obsessed with the paraphernalia of death and find the world of fake mediums and funeral parlours intrinsically funny! The idea of aliens ‘occupying’ corpses is very grim as is the Doctor’s insistence that it’s a viable idea. I found that very interesting to explore.
WhoSFX: Did you want it be classic ‘behind-the-sofa’ material?
Mark: Oh very much so! I went on Radio 4’s ‘PM’ after it went out as there’d been a lot of complaints. Eddie Mair asked me how I felt about terrifying the nation’s children and I said ‘I’m thrilled!’ That, to me, was always so much of Doctor Who‘s appeal. It scared the life out of me when I was a kid but in a delightful way. Like being on a rollercoaster. ‘The Daemons’ scared the pants off me (especially Bok the gargoyle) but the Doctor’s presence reassured me. I was over the moon about the ‘sting’ into the titles with the zombified Mrs Peace walking into the camera. Those eyes! That face! That awful groan. It was genuinely scary.
WhoSFX: Could it have been darker or were you told to rein it in a little?
Mark: I remember discussing at the tone meeting what kind of zombies they’d be and there was a consensus that we needed to err on the side of ‘family friendly’. But, as ever, Doctor Who pushes the envelope! I think the themes were sufficiently dark and I certainly had no interest in trying to push the new show into overtly horrific areas. As I say, children love to be scared but you have to aware of the parameters of the time slot, of the tone of the show, of your audience’s expectations.
WhoSFX: Were you given much guidance about budget and how ‘big’ the episode could be?
Mark: Something happened which has never happened to me before or since in TV. I was asked to spend more money!! I think with my producer’s hat on I was trying to make the episode very ‘do-able’ and the early drafts were very much confined to the house. The team then asked me to do a big ‘Victorian Cardiff’ scene to really establish the thrill of time travel and add some scale.
WhoSFX: What did you think when Christopher Eccleston was cast?
I thought it was a very exciting and interesting choice, not the obvious one at all. I’d worked with Chris on the third series of The League of Gentlemen and remember him saying ‘Thanks for asking me to do this. Everyone thinks I’m a miserable bastard!’ So I suppose I wasn’t surprised that he wanted to do something so different and outside his comfort zone. His casting also sent a very clear message that the new show meant business. I think he was a wonderful Doctor.
WhoSFX: What point in the writing process did the casting take place, and did you make any changes because of it?
Mark: I can’t actually remember. I’m pretty sure I wrote at least the first draft (it was called The Crippingwell Horror originally) without a Doctor cast, based on Russell’s thoughts on what kind of person the new man might be. After that, I do what i always do which is to try and get the actor’s speech patterns and mannerisms in my head. Chris’ ‘bluntness’ and his northernness were the immediate obvious differences as was Russell’s insistence that the new Doctor not be ‘a posh boy’!
WhoSFX: Were the Gelth part of RTD’s original brief?
Mark: I think it mentioned ‘gas monsters being drawn out of he walls by a machine’ but I’ve always had a thing about possession and ‘non-corproeal’ aliens so that’s what they became! I remember well sitting down and thinking ‘This is it. I’m naming a Doctor Who monster!’ Happily, as with Terry Nation, the name just sorted of ‘rolled off the laptop’! I wanted them to appear pathetic and rather sad but then turn when the true nature of their plan was revealed. Are there any ‘Pity the Gelth’ T shirts? There should be!
WhoSFX: Where did your inspiration come from for the creatures? Were the Gelth on screen how you envisaged them?
Mark: I wanted them to be classically ghostly in form but also (reflecting their gaseousness) sort of formless and intangible. The ‘turn’ into evil Gelth is obviously knicked from Raiders of the Lost Ark but, you know, always steal from the best! I was thrilled by the final result. I think everyone was taken aback by the slickness and impact of the FX. The one thing I remember being very specific about was that the Gelth should briefly ‘occupy’ a lion ‘s head door knocker a la Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol.
WhoSFX: What was it like when you attended the recording of your episode?
Mark: It was a dream come true, of course. I couldn’t quite believe it was happening. And, of course, none of us knew that the show would take off like it did. That might have been the first and last new season! So I was determined to lap up every minute. It was where I first met Simon Callow (a good friend to this day) and the wonderful Alan David (whose casting was my suggestion. I’d loved him since The Squirrels!) Euros Lynn did a brilliant job and I found him an immensely sympathetic and inventive director.
Thank you Mark Gatiss.